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Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost?



Certain things in life are deadly – Box jellyfish, Cyanide, Being pelted with machine gun bullets.


All of those will kill you. Artificial sweeteners won’t.


TL;DR - Including artificial sweeteners in your diet may allow you to adhere to your diet better, as they add sweetness and taste without adding calories, and adherence and sustainability are two of the most important factors in achieving long-term weight-loss goals.

Yet, despite this, people still seem hell-bent on demonising diet drinks, calorie-free syrups and sauces, and those innocent little packets of Splenda as if they were the most toxic poisons known to man.


(By the way, with the term “artificial sweeteners” we’re talking aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-K, and similar non-nutritive sweeteners.)


I’m not saying artificial sweeteners are necessarily “healthy” … but there’s absolutely no need to avoid them, provided you consume them in the way they were intended, and in the context of an overall balanced diet.


Where the Myth Stems From


Unfortunately, I blame clean eaters for this one. In their pursuit of eating as “naturally” as possible, they started to hate artificial sweeteners, claiming that the manufacturing process and the chemicals were deadly, and that our bodies weren’t designed to process and digest sweeteners.


Certain studies have actually found artificial sweeteners to be dangerous.


BUT …


These studies were done on rodents. While rodent studies aren’t completely invalid, it’s crucial to note that rats and mice only have a life span of around 2 years, and metabolise fat around 10 times faster than humans, so their digestive tracts are wired differently.



Not just that, but there were at least one of three things wrong with all these studies –

  • The rodents were injected with artificial sweeteners (usually into the brain).

  • They had their gut bacteria removed before the experiments took place.

  • They were given huge doses – much higher than any human could possibly ever consume.


I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to inject my Walden Farms, or walk around with an IV of Splenda attached to me.


To say that using the findings from rodent studies provide speculative results of what might occur in humans, is a little farcical to say the least. In actual fact, the results of these studies are so far removed from how we consume them, that they really provide no evidence whatsoever.


Yet, as is so often the case, those on the anti-sweetener bandwagon cherry pick these studies, or take tiny quotes from abstracts to back up their claims.



What the Science Says

Man, we could go to town on this one - In two respects actually.


Using flawed studies like the rodent ones, or those that have used the correlation equals causation logic, you could pull up quite a lot of data supporting the anti-artificial sweetener argument.


But when you look at actual research, it’s quite different.


Rather than give you a tonne of studies and references to struggle through though, how about a few quotes?


"There are no studies that indicate any long-term health risks from drinking diet soda. Diet Soda (defined as calorie free carbonated beverages sweetened with aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame-potassium, or other non-caloric or minimally caloric sweeteners) is not harmful to health, well-being, or body composition".


"There is no evidence that diet soda inhibits fat loss, or that it even spikes insulin levels to levels that would be detrimental to health".


"Current research that attempts to link diet soda with health issues did not have equal caloric consumption. Excess caloric consumption has a direct correlation with many health issues".


"Numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women".


"[Studies that examine whether artificial sweeteners cause cancer] none of these studies have not provided clear evidence of an association with cancer in humans".



Don’t They Make You Fat?

Ah, the old correlation equals causation argument rears its ugly head again.


Overweight folk may well consume artificial sweeteners in high quantities, but that doesn’t mean that these sweeteners are the cause of weight gain.


While they do contain calories, the amount is negligible compared to the full-calorie alternatives they’re designed to replace.


Splenda, for instance, is around 95% carbohydrate, putting it at a similar carb count to sugar, but a teaspoon only weighs 1 gram, whereas a teaspoon of sugar is 5g. That’s 4 calories in Splenda compared to 20 calories in the same volume of sugar.


Some anecdotal evidence has suggested that a high consumption of artificial sweeteners can increase appetitive and lead to you eating more but I don’t see this as an issue. However, there are no studies yet to measure this to any statistical significance.


If you’re tracking macros and hitting your numbers, then there’s no need to worry about over-shooting. If you get a sweet craving, you’re far better off reaching for a Diet Coke or having a sugar-free jelly than you are gorging on chocolate cake or indulging in ice cream if you’ve already hit your carbs for the day.



Practical Recommendations

If you don’t want to consume artificial sweeteners, you don’t have to.


Just realise that they won’t do you any harm whatsoever unless you have a specific medical condition that says otherwise.


Sure, you don’t want to overdo them, and become reliant on your non-nutritive sweet fix, unable to function without a bottle of something fizzy, or putting 8 packets of “Sweet n’ Low” into your espresso, but the odd bit here and there is fine.


Including them may even make you adhere to your diet better, as they add taste without adding calories.


Finally, just because they don’t provide any benefit doesn’t mean they’re bad either. Don’t go out of your way to start eating artificial sweeteners if you don’t currently, but the notion that they’re bad for you, will make you fat, or lead you to an early grave is a complete myth.